Sunday, 16 November 2008
A mid-autumn week's dream
When the Resident Fan Boy was still in hospital, one of the things he was most worried about was the prospect of missing Spamalot and A Midsummer Night's Dream at the National Art Centre this week. It would have been a great pity if he had missed the glorious silliness of the former, but, oh dear, thank goodness we didn't miss the latter!
This MSND is the Dash Arts production featuring an Indian and Sri Lankan cast, most of whom are quadruple threats: they can sing, dance, act, and do acrobatics. No, wait...quintuple threats. They do all this in several languages, and this was the cause of a minor controversy here in Ottawa. An enterprising co-worker of the Resident Fan Boy set up a group-rate for the office, then sent out a warning e-mail with an offer to cancel the tickets when it was reported that some people were walking out. Apparently the issue was that this Dream is performed in eight languages including (Shakespearean) English, Tamil, Sanskrit, and Hindi among others. Actually, this was only a problem if you are unfamiliar with the play and you could probably work out much of what was going on from the eloquent body language, although I was silently grateful I had shown some tapes of MSND to younger daughter beforehand, both for my sake and hers. I had a quiet giggle listening to a couple behind me in line for the washrooms at the interval. She knew the play and, although he was claiming some knowledge, he muttered something about Coles Notes.
Anyway, I was enchanted, entranced, mesmerized. The actors seemed to switch seamlessly between languages (rather like a lot of Ottawans flip from French to English and back again within the same sentence), so all of a sudden, you'd realize that the words you were hearing were Shakespeare's original lines. The three female leads, Hermia, Helena, and Titania (who doubled as Hippolyta), were the only actors to speak in English exclusively, and what stunned and charmed me was how natural Shakespeare sounds flowing off an Indian/Sri Lankan tongue. What also struck me was the female strength in these characters: Hermia had the confidence of a pretty girl who has always had her way; Helena had the drive that comes from the desperate conviction that Demetrius is the man for her; and Titania had the power of a queen not bound by earthly restrictions and morals -- there was never any doubt that she was not Oberon's equal in every way.
Then there was the physicality of this production. The performers climbed the structures, balanced on platforms, tumbled and twirled in the dirt that made up the stage floor. Titania spent a good portion of the end of the second act and beginning of the third act folded up in a hammock like a beautiful crimson chrysalis, a testament to her endurance and flexibility. Much has been made of the sexiness of this production (elder daughter predicted, correctly, that this would fly over younger daughter's head), but it's not a leering sexuality; it's frank, funny, and urgent. When Bottom is transformed, he not only sports woven ears, but a wooden phallus hanging from his belt. Given the gentle, innocent fallibility of the character, we only hope that he will enjoy his erotic adventure -- which he does.
The cast were uniformly wonderful, but I particularly enjoyed Vivek Mishra, a Delhi actor who captured Peter Quince's exasperation, but also danced with expressive fluidity. When the cast brought the play to an end in a joyous and contagious song and dance, the audience clapped along spontaneously. I only wish we could have hung around for the impromptu cast discussion afterward, but younger daughter was slipping into a mid-autumn dream of her own. Her outstanding Grade Four teacher (who also taught elder daughter in Grade Five) had been somewhere behind us in the balcony, and caught us before we left in search of a taxi and younger daughter managed a sleepy greeting.
While madly putting holds on various MSND performances prior to the play, I had a chance to re-discover my two very favourite recorded productions, both done within a year of each other. The first is Jonathan Miller's interpretation, done as part of the BBC's Complete Plays of William Shakepeare for television in the late seventies and early eighties. It featured Helen Mirren as Titania, Peter McEnery as Oberon and Nigel Davenport as Theseus, but to my mind, the best thing of all about it was the "eternal quadrangle" of Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena as performed by Pippa Guard, Robert Lindsay, Nicky Henson, and Cherith Mellor, respectively. Overlapping each others' lines, struggling in muddy water, and bewildered by fairy forces, these are the funniest and most likeable versions of the lovers you're likely to find. I don't think this is available in DVD format outside of Region Two. The other is a 1982 Joseph Papp production for Shakespeare in the Park (Central Park, that is) with William Hurt as Oberon, a very young Christine Baranski as Helena and bizarrely, Emmanuel Lewis as the changeling boy that Titania is protecting. The lovers are very funny here too (their costumes scream "Eighties!!"), and William Hurt is very much William Hurt ("Ill...met...by...moonlight..." -- I always said he must have attended the William Shatner School of Acting), but the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play is, hands down, the most hilarious rendition you'll see anywhere. Doubt this is available on DVD either. Sigh. See them if you can get your mitts on them, and if the Dash production comes your way (although it seems to have been around the world already), for heaven's sake, go.